The Jakarta Post
Tara Isabella Burton (Bloomsbury/Rose Callahan)
Social Creature, a debut by Tara Isabella Burton, depicts the lives of social media-dwelling, career climbing/aspiring millennials. Set in New York and involving a murder, the book might seem like a hybrid of Gossip Girl and Gone Girl at a glance, but Burton makes the story work in many layers.
A writer with a doctorate degree in theology, Burton has authored several short stories and various pieces on religion and culture. The Jakarta Post talks with Tara Isabella Burton about the inspiration and meaning behind the story and its characters.
What drove you to write Social Creature?
I wanted to explore the myriad and diverse ways that we create our own identities, and, in particular, the way in which women's relationships with other women reflect the complicated dynamic of self-creation. Do we want to be someone else, to become someone else, to define ourselves in opposition to someone else? Social Creature is very much a female response-text to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, one that centers the toxic and mutually obsessive relationship of the lead characters. I didn't want to make it too straightforward -- whether Louise or Lavinia was the "villain". They're both deeply flawed human beings looking for their own identity in one another.
Do you feel that we are too immersed in social media?
I don't, actually! I think as human beings we're inherently social creatures (sorry!), and that we try to create our own identities in a variety of ways -- from the books we tell people we read to the clothes we wear to how we do our hair. Social media is just one way among many that we create our personae, and to me it's a very fascinating and rich method. But I don't think the internet has changed us as human beings. Fundamentally, we are performers and storytellers. The internet just lets us do that more effectively, and without being grounded in our physical bodies or (as Louise shows us) actual physical reality.
Lavinia undoubtedly has her own gravitas, with respect to other characters. What inspired you to write her?
Is it bad if I say Lavinia is something of a self-portrait? I mean -- she's awful, but I find her worst qualities to be ones I relate to. I, too, am often very insecure, and cover it up by adopting this highly performative, highly "bohemian" persona -- certainly, I dress a lot like Lavinia does in real life. I wanted to contend with my own flaws, very sincerely, and write the worst of myself into a character as a way of taking a long, hard, look at myself. Lavinia is selfish, sure, and self-obsessed, and a narcissist, but ultimately she's not a malignant person. She's governed by fear -- fear of losing love -- and I think (or hope) that makes her very relatable. She draws people like Mimi and Louise into her orbit because she is so desperate for approval of others -- she's like a kid saying, "Look at me! I can slide down the slide without hands!" And ultimately she pushes them away because she punishes them for loving her: she doesn't love herself, and so she doesn't trust anyone who shows her affection.
What is one takeaway from the book that is most personal to you?
There's that one line -- we cannot be known and loved at the same time. That's what I wanted to get at with this book. The fear that people who come to truly know us will no longer love us, and the "impostor" syndrome that comes along with that. For Louise, that struggle and that ordeal is very literal: the more she does to preserve the love and the affection of those around us, the more, and darker, secrets she ends up having to keep. She is an extreme example but for me the book is always about that fear: and about the impostor syndrome that lives within us all
Which authors did you look up to when writing this book?
So of course Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier are the obvious models here -- I wanted to write a Gothic, toxic, lush thriller. But I was also very consciously inspired by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment -- another story about how a terrible crime proves spiritually corrosive from within. Of course Raskolnikov's suffering and guilt was a direct model on Louise's. And I'm also deeply influenced by the subtle psychological novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton -- two great chronicles of New York and the literati of another age. How people subtly maneuver and manipulate and attack one another. Also, Lawrence Durrell, in his Alexandria Novels, has such a great sense of place -- creating an oppressive presence. I wanted to do that for New York. And, for poems, I love how Walt Whitman used language to create a distinctively "American" voice. When I was trying to figure out how to combine the lyricism of the books I loved with the facts of social media and incorporating modern text-speak into a novel, I looked for Whitman for inspiration in how to blend the modern and the poetic.
You’ve written short fiction. What were the challenges of writing a novel? How was it different?
I much prefer writing novels. I like to spend extended periods of time with characters, really get to know them inside out, and short fiction doesn't necessarily allow me to do that -- although I do have a short story coming out in Granta this August that I'm very excited about. But in general, I need to get to know characters well, and novels gives the time and space with which to do that.
You studied theology and in a 2013 piece for The Atlantic, you encouraged people to study it too to understand history 'from within'. What about personal relationships? And how did your studies influence your writing?
I did my doctorate in theology, yes. I'm interested in people's search for meaning, and people's hunger for some kind of spiritual order in their lives. And my faith -- I'm an Episcopalian Christian -- does absolutely inform my writing. Much of the second half of the book is about Louise dealing with the absence of that -- she's compromised herself morally, and no lightning bolt has come down from heaven to strike her down, and she has to deal, psychologically, with what that means. What does that mean to live in a world where moral justice isn't automatically forthcoming, when you *can* get away with doing some unspeakable things? Louise's sense of guilt and emptiness is, I believe, what causes her to act erratically -- she wants to get caught, because the idea of living in a world where there's nobody there to catch you is even more terrifying than being "found out". (wng)